Columns » Ernest Dumas

The war debate


American voters have rarely had an appetite for much argument about foreign policy and war in presidential campaigns, but it is clearly different this year. People of every persuasion want those issues illuminated and they deserve a frank and full debate between President Bush and Senator Kerry. Alas, they are not apt to get it. Neither man has any zeal for a candid discussion of their doctrines of war and foreign affairs, Kerry owing to his own failure of will on the war resolution in Congress that gave Bush the signal to invade Iraq and Bush owing to the catastrophes that he has made both of the two wars that he has waged and of the international relationships that have been the backbone of American power for more than half a century. Kerry does the best he can with his limitations. He will never send men and women to die unless the country has no choice but to go to war, he says. War will always be a last resort, in contrast to George Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war: We will go to war if we suspect a potential foe has the resources and will to threaten the United States. But the president is not going to articulate that policy in the campaign since his war against al Qaeda and Iraq have turned sour and the United States does not have the capacity any longer to wage a war against nations that clearly are threats, such as North Korea and Iran. So he is transforming himself into the peace president. He is, he said last week, rapidly bringing peace around the world. So entrapped is Kerry by his vote for the Iraq resolution that the Democratic Party platform could not state what Kerry and every major Democratic official, most Democratic voters and, we suspect, most Republicans, have long known, that the war was an epic mistake. Whenever Kerry makes a tepid criticism of the war - the president blundered in managing it - the Republicans razz him for flip-flopping, first favoring the war then criticizing it. They are wrong, of course. Kerry never favored the war. On the eve of the vote on the resolution in October 2002 he said he was voting for it in order to prevent war, not start it. He was voting to give Bush authority so that he could bring forces to bear to get the issues resolved without war and he called on Bush not go to war without full international backing and participation. But nuance is good for dissertations, not for political campaigns. Kerry would confide later that he really believed that Bush would allow U.N. inspections and assemble international support. Bush, you will remember, would later claim that he went to war because Saddam Hussein wouldn't let U.N. inspectors into the country - a blatant lie. It was Bush who ordered the inspectors to leave Iraq so that the bombing could begin. Bush said he would go to war only as "a last resort," but if Sen. Kerry really believed Bush would wait on inspections and for a reluctant international community to support him he was one of the few. Everything that has gone wrong in Iraq - the discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction or even chemical, biological or nuclear programs, that there was no connection with al Qaeda and 9/11, the violence and unrest in postwar Iraq, an inflamed Arab world and dismayed allies - were all known and predicted before the invasion and even before the congressional vote. Secretary of State Colin Powell knew it. Here's what he said in February 2001 at Cairo about President Clinton's sanctions and military reprisals against Saddam: "Frankly, they have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors." In other words, rotten as he was, Saddam was not even a threat to his neighbors any longer, much less to the United States. Powell was forced to change his story when the meager American force in Afghanistan let Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders escape and Bush looked for another enemy. On the eve of the congressional vote, a Knight-Ridder team wrote that intelligence experts and diplomats privately had misgivings about the war because the administration hawks had exaggerated evidence of Saddam's threats and that analysts were under pressure to produce reports supporting the administration's arguments that Iraq was a grave and imminent threat to the United States. The Washington Post, an editorial supporter of the war, carried the same news. The dramatic report of the 9/11 commission last month was old hat. Despite his limitations, here's all that Kerry needs to ask of Bush and the country. If Iraq were a desert tyranny with no oil, would the president have ordered the invasion? And if he had sent the forces to Afghanistan and Pakistan to eradicate bin Laden and al Qaeda, would there have been a war in Iraq? The answer to both is no, and the United States and the world would truly have been safer if Bush had done the first task competently.

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